February 14th is Valentine’s Day, and perhaps you will go dancing. It is summer in the Southern Hemisphere, and on the beautiful island off the coast of New Zealand that I call home, the population increases from the usual 800 residents to a few thousand, as campers and hikers and holiday-makers come to relax and enjoy the bush, beach and sea. This summer, there was a new activity; a Beatles dance. Now they weren’t THE Beatles of course, but they were a great substitute. It was a raging success: a hot night, a beautiful location, and everybody danced and danced and danced. Not waltzes and foxtrots, but freestyle. Partners, no partner, it didn’t matter. The average age of the dancers, I would guess, was around 55, with a range from 12 to 80. Because everyone was so intent on dancing, and singing along with the songs from their own teenage and young adult years, the consumption of alcohol was considerably reduced, compared to a non-dancing social occasion. Many people were dressed in seventies gear, and we all know that as soon as we dress differently, we act differently and feel differently.
I wonder how many of the dancers knew they were engaging in the one physical activity that seems to beat all others in staving off cognitive decline and delaying the onset of dementia? A research article published in 2003 suggested just that (The New England Journal of Medicine, 2003, Volume 348, pp 2508-2516).
The long-term Bronx Aging Study, which began in 1980, looked at the leisure activities of 469 community dwellers aged 75 to 85 years with no signs of dementia when they were enrolled, to see if either physical or cognitive leisure activities delayed cognitive decline and dementia. A number of cognitive activities, including reading, playing board games, doing crossword puzzles at least four times a week, and playing musical instruments were associated with a lower risk of developing dementia over the next five or so years, but the only physical activity that decreased the risk of dementia was frequent dancing. Frequent dancing reduced the likelihood of developing dementia by a mind-boggling 76%, which was higher than any other cognitive or physical activity studied. Physical activities that did not appear to delay dementia onset included walking, bicycling and swimming. This was an observational rather than a carefully controlled study, with many inter-related factors to take account of, so one can’t take this as the last word on the matter. And there were physical activities, such as golf and tennis, that were not included because fewer than 10% of the senior citizens participated in them.
Cognitive leisure activities such as doing crossword puzzles stimulate our cerebral cortex, and especially the hippocampus. These areas are very plastic and capable of rewiring neural pathways if needed. This improves the cognitive reserve in our brains and thus delays cognitive decline, and the onset of dementia.
So perhaps dancing is so good for our ongoing mental health as we age because of its overlap with cognitive activity. Some forms of dancing, and especially freestyle dancing, rely more on quick mental responses and split-second decisions than some other leisure activities. The participants in the Bronx Aging Study were young during the period spanning the Roaring Twenties to the Swing Era, and perhaps these are the dances they still love to do! Of course, ballroom dancing also involves complex cognitive gymnastics, especially at the higher levels of the dance. Physical activities that did not appear to delay cognitive decline and dementia, such as swimming and cycling, are likely to be very automatic activities by the time we are in our seventies. Thus, there is little need for quick mental responses.
So if you want to improve your chances of retaining both your physical and mental fitness as you age, find an activity that involves physical exercise to increase physical and cardiac fitness, but that also involves lots of quick thinking. Dancing is obviously the perfect choice, and it has other benefits as well; it is usually a social activity (although dancing alone down a starlit beach is pretty nice too), it takes over and halts all thoughts of work and life’s problems, and it makes us happy.
Perhaps that clichéd saying often seen on cards “Dance like there is no tomorrow” should be “Dance so there is a tomorrow”!
Happy Valentine’s Day!